How to get a job as a Production Assistant on a Film Set.
Working in the film industry I always get the same two responses when telling people what I do. Oh how glamorous! How can I get a job in the film industry? Well, before you actually try to trudge your way to the top you might first want to know what you are actually getting in to. It seems like every kid in film school imagines that upon graduating they are going to be a big director or producer. Get in line. You and every other film school graduate and half the population of LA. The other half, of course, are all want-to-be actors. Chances are if you aren't the relative of some already established film industry professional, you are going to have to work your way from the bottom up. So, what exactly does that mean?
Life on set is not as glamorous as the general public thinks. Yes it can be fun and exciting, but most of the time it's a whole lot of hurry up and wait. Chances are your first job, if you are so lucky to get a chance at it, is going to be a production assistant. Now nearly every department on set (and off) have production assistants. This does not, however, usually include sound, director's, actor's, or producer's. There's usually a chance to intern (i.e. free work) in the sound department, but usually nothing to do with the "above the line" people. Above the line people refer to the budget. These people include the actors, director, and producers. All the rest of the crew are referred to as "below the line." So what does your job as a production assistant, more commonly referred to as PA, include? Well, it all depends on which department you are in. Most PAs work in the production department. They wear walkies, help set background extras in the scene, lock up locations during filming, yell "Rolling" and "Cut" so all crew are aware, get the actors food and water, and basically anything else they might be asked to do. The production department is the communication network of the set. Unfortunately, regardless of how hard they work on average a PA makes between $125-150 a day, a 12 hour day, that is. Another not so glamorous fact about the film industry is the long hours. We film a minimum of 12 hour days and are only guaranteed a 10 hour turn around before we have to be back at work the next day.
The time we go to work every day, otherwise knows as "call time," changes on a daily basis and we never know what it is until we finish filming, or "wrap," for the day. Once we are done filming for the day, a lot of crew (including PAs) have another hour of "wrap" work. For some this is just paperwork, for others it is putting up all their gear and getting it loaded back onto the trucks to be moved to the next day's location. Therefore, most 12 hour filming days turn into 13 hour work days. PAs, however, usually work even longer. Usually, they have to be in an hour before the rest of the crew. This is so they can check in the background extras and help get breakfast orders for the actors, hair, makeup and wardrobe people. That being said, if you get a job as a PA you can guarantee you are going to work on average a minimum of 14 hour days, with about a 7-8 hour turn around before you have to be back at work. That's 70 hours of work a week! If you are the type of person that likes sleep, this is definitely not for you.
So how do you get that job as a PA without any connections in the film industry. Well, if you happen to still be in school, apply for an internship on a production. Most TV shows and any film will have internships available. These are not paid positions, but they are necessary in order for you to get the hands on experience and network to secure your next job. If you happen to be out of school, apply to any and every project around for a PA or internship position. Chances are you won't get a paid position, so you have to be willing to work for free first. You can find most production information at your state's film commission and most have websites now that make this even easier. Lastly, find out where the film crowd in your city hangs out. Go to that bar/restaurant and start to meet them. Network, Network, Network. Tell anyone you know you are interested in becoming a PA. Often times when the production department is looking for PAs they ask other crew members on set if they have any recommendations. This is a great way to get hired. If you befriend someone in the business and they see real potential in you they will help you to get your foot in the door. Once in the rest is up to you. So make sure you have a good attitude and are helpful to all departments. So much of filmmaking is a collaborative effort that nobody wants someone on the project that isn't helpful.
If you are interested in being a Director or Producer, try being an on-set PA. On-set PAs are in the production department which is headed by the First Assistant Director, or "AD." ADs often become Directors and/or Producers. It's a way of making it up the chain to the top when you don't have nepotism in your court. If you want to be a Production Designer, PA in the Art Department (either on-set or off). Another way to work your way into the Producer category, PA in the office. The office PA is overseen by the Production Office Coordinator, or POC. The POC often works his/her way into co-producing and the Producing. Perhaps the most difficult and highly-strived after PA position is in the Camera Department. They usually only have 1-2 PAs, depending on the size of the show. This is a great way to become a Camera Operator, Director of Photography and, eventually, even a Director if you so choose.
There's definitely a lot of different ways to get in to the film business. Some people even start out as background extras and then go on to network and become not only Actors but PAs. This is, however, a business where you only really get one shot at it. If given your opportunity on a show to work in any capacity, give it 110%. Do everything you are told, pay attention, and try to foresee other things you need to do before they actually come up. There are some cardinal rules to know before you set foot on set though.
1. Wear OSHA approved clothes toed shoes. You don't want to be sent home the moment you get to work.
2. Don't Touch Any Body Else's Gear! This will get you in trouble. Film industry professionals all belong to unions and those unions govern who can touch and operate what equipment. You should know what equipment belongs to which department and ask that department to move their stuff if it is in the way.
3. If you are a PA, don't ever sit down (except, of course, for lunch). You will never hear the end of it from other crew if you do. It shows laziness and PAs are at the bottom of the totem pole and don't want to appear lazy. Also, don't ever let more than 2 PAs congregate together for any period of time. You should all have work that requires you to be in separate places.
4. Never have personal conversations on the walkie. Always call some to a private channel before having a long discussion. Long talks on Channel 1 bog up the Production line and infuriate the 1st AD.
5. When filming on location in the winter - Layer, Layer, Layer. It gets cold standing outside for 12 hours straight!